Yesterday, after Pat Robertson’s inspired remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke as divine retribution for giving up the Israeli settlements in Gaza, I asked if we can all finally agree that Robertson is beyond the pale. A lot of us, apparently, can: the White House has condemned Pat’s remarks as “wholly inappropriate and offensive,” and Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and religious liberty commission, says he is “stunned and appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular tragic events … were the judgments of God.” But tonight, I was pretty stunned myself when former Congressman-turned-Fox News talk show host John Kasich, subbing for Bill O’Reilly on “The O’Reilly Factor,” offered a sort-of defense of Robertson, whom he judged to be guilty only of poor timing.
After offering some mild criticism of Robertson while questioning Christian radio talk show host Janet Folger, Kasich inquired of his other guest, Fordham University media studies chairman Paul Levinson:
John Kasich: Your feelings about this, Mr. Levinson? I mean — is the media sort of grabbing onto everything Pat says and tries to blow it up? I mean, you saw his statement, right? It wasn’t a statement out of some mean guy — he claims that he was quoting the book of Joel, and if you read the Book of Joel and what it says here — he’s basically saying, it wasn’t him, it was something he quoted out of the scripture.
Paul Levinson: I have an enormous amount of respect for the scripture, but when people in our modern age try to apply it literally in a fanatical way, it leads to graceless, absurd statements such as Pat Robertson made. If you think about the fact — the only other public figure who’ commented about Sharon’s dying being appropriate in any way is the President of Iran, who’s a fundamentalist Islamic nutcase.
John Kasich: (chuckles) You’re not trying to compare Pat Robertson to the–this lunatic over in Iran, are you?
Janet Folger: I hope not.
Paul Levinson: I’m comparing two people who are fundamentalists and who don’t seem to have a modern view of the world — who don’t seem to understand that the Prime Minister shouldn’t be judged according to scripture when he’s on his deathbed.
John Kasich: So let me ask you this, then. I mean — are you saying that what is written in the Bible cannot be applied today? You said that, you know, what we’re doing is trying to apply things too literally — don’t you think that in America today, we don’t apply it at all, too much of the time?
Paul Levinson: No, I think we apply it just fine in the United States.
John Kasich: Yeah, but when we look at —
Paul Levinson: We have a diversified —
John Kasich : Yeah, but when we look at problems of character, integrity — whether it’s professional athletes, pop culture, whatever — aren’t you basically saying that, you know, let’s modernize the whole book? And I think what Pat Robertson is saying, rightly or wrongly, is — that book shouldn’t be modernized. It ought to reflect what that Old Testament says.
Paul Levinson: I’m not saying that the Old Testament is wrong. I’m saying that the literal application of it to a Prime Minister who is trying to bring peace to his region when he is on his deathbed is a very inappropriate statement.
John Kasich: Fair point. Now, Janet, what I need to know from you is, when Pat does things like this or says things like this — and I think you would agree, it wasn’t the appropriate time. Agree with that? It was just not the right time to be talking about this.
Janet Folger: Look, the time you make statements like that is when you can do something about it — don’t divide the land.
John Kasich: So, inappropriate time. The question is, does Pat sort of undermine the movement when he makes a statement like this — that he might — which he says was taken out of context or whatever — does it undermine the movement, the Christian movement? People say, I’m not gonna listen to that.
Janet Folger: You know – again, I’m not gonna be another voice to bully up or beat up on PR. He’s free to defend himself and he’s very capable of it —
John Kasich: Yeah, but I want to know what you think.
Janet Folger: — but I don’t think we should blame him for reading from the bible. And I’ll be honest with you — the way I read the Bible, it talks about — nations that bless Israel are gonna be blessed, nations that curse Israel are gonna be cursed — and I’ll be honest with you, where I worry about the judgment being cast is that I think we need to look in the mirror — because we’re one of the groups, the nations that actually strong-armed the prime minister into giving up land, making Israel less secure. And —
John Kasich: I got you. Now — People for the American Way, professor — you know — against flag desecration — they’re not like some mainstream group, you know — they’re way out there. It’s like they grab everything that Pat says, they monitor everything he says. You’re in communications — have we gotten to the point now in America where, with the blogs and the 24-hour news cycle, you can’t say anything? It’s going to be analyzed, overanalyzed, taken out of context? Don’t you think that’s fair?
Paul Levinson: No. Criticism of what public figures say is a crucial part of dialogue in a democratic society, which we have. We don’t live in a totalitarian state where religious or political leaders can say whatever they please and they’re beyond criticism. Pat Robertson chose to say this in a public forum and I think that he’s fair game for criticism. It’s not the end of the world that he said it — I don’t think he should be executed, I’m not a fanatic myself —
John Kasich: Yeah, and I wouldn’t compare him —
Paul Levinson: Well, it’s an indication of what happens you apply in a fanatical, fundamentalist way —
John Kasich: Look, I don’t think it’s a fanatical way — it’s a reading of the Old Testament — he has his view, to label it somehow, you know, off the deep end, I don’t think is fair. Janet, what I’ll say to you is, I know Pat, I like him very much, he’s been a great leader. He’s got to be a little more careful with how he says things and when he says things.
(The complete transcript of the segment can be found here.)
So, let me see if I’m getting this straight. What Pat Robertson says cannot be labeled as fanatical or “off the deep end,” because his views are rooted in his reading of the Old Testament. And, of course, you can’t possibly compare him to “this lunatic over in Iran,” whose views are rooted in his reading of the Koran.
And no, I’m not saying that there’s no difference between Pat Robertson and fundamentalist Islamic fanatics. Pat isn’t urging people to strap on explosives and go blow up the infidels, nor is he calling for unchaste women to be stoned to death. But, just out of curiosity, if Pat did call for the stoning of adulteresses, would Kasich consider that “fanatical” and “off the deep end,” or not? After all, that’s based on a very literal reading of the Old Testament.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how religiously based opinions have the same right to be heard in the public square as opinions rooted in secular ideas. That’s all good and fine; I certainly don’t think that someone’s position on any given issue is illegitimate because it’s influenced by religion, and I think that a lot of the time, secular liberals have been dismissive of certain conservative views for no other reason. But if religiously based ideas should have equal access to the public square, they should not be off-limits to harsh criticism and even ridicule, any more than secular ideologies. If you can spout vicious nonsense and then have it excused on the grounds that it’s your interpretation of the Bible, then maybe you don’t belong in a public forum.
And how pathetic that, instead of firmly repudiating the odious Pat Robertson, Kasich should try to shoot the messenger and bizarrely suggest that it’s unfair for the statements of public leaders to be analyzed too much.
More: Some of my commenters have suggested that Pat Robertson is not that important a political figure, and that his comments are being blown out of proportion. Robertson was the founder of the Christian Coalition, which played a leading role in organizing the conservative Christian base as a voting bloc in the 1990s. It’s true that he stepped down as head of the Christian Coalition in 2001, and that the Coalition’s political influence has waned. It is also quite true that, as this Washington Post article published last October points out, Robertson’s own influence in the GOP is not at all what it used to be. Nonetheless, he is important enough that his endorsement of Bush Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers (remember her?) was treated as news by conservative media. Robertson has also met with Bush and Karl Rove; we’re hardly talking about a minor figure.